I got excited news from a prolific writer about train and bicycle stuff this morning. It came from Christian Wolmar right, who is self-styled as ‘Britain’s leading transport commentator’. We’ve met on various occasions and although I haven’t always agreed with him, I’ve often found his passionately expressed views interesting – and that he is generally quite an an affable chap.
It turns out that dear old Wolmar has got his knickers well twisted by rumours that a £140m fund to run a body he is director of, at a cost to the taxpayer that began at £5m and increased to £60m per year, is about to get the chop. The body concerned is called Cycling England and Wolmar asks Norman some searching questions. These include:
What is Norman Baker for? What is the point of you being in the Department of Transport? Then, with no more beating about the bush, our new minister is asked this.
“Are you a fig-leaf for the most reactionary policies to come out of the Marsham Street since the days of Nicholas Ridley?”
Cripes! I thought. That’s quite a question to ask a guy who, whatever you may think of him, at least had the guts to voice serious concerns over the exceptionally odd death of Dr David Kelly – who may have known far too much for his own good about the weapons of mass destruction that ‘justified’ the Iraq war – but weren’t actually there. Anyway, Wolmar also tells Norman that Cycling England is facing the axe “for the crime of being a quango – when it could quite easily not be one”.
In response to all this excitement and rumours of funding cuts, the bicycle industry has quite understandably “raised its voice” in support of Cycling England. But whatever the rights and wrongs of all this may be it is set in a tough situation in Britain where spending cuts amounting to £6.2bn need to be made with £683m to be hacked from the Transport Ministers’ budget.
Now I remember passing the good old cycling proficiency test and would love to see it continue to help youngsters learn how to ride a bicycle safely. But I am left with a number of puzzling questions. First, do we really need to spend £60m of public funds per year to do so? Secondly, is an angry letter from the nations’ ‘leading transport commentator’ likely to encourage a Transport Minister to keep a body like Cycling England safe from the budget slasher’s knife?
To be honest, I have no idea what the answer to the first question is but it does seem odd that the costs of running the quango that runs a proficiency test should grow from £5m to £60m in two or three years.
As to the second question, I will leave you to decide for yourself. But I offer a couple of illustrations to show how wide the gap can be between the opinions of prominent figures who comment about cycling. There can be no doubt that Bojo, London’s larger-than-life Conservative Mayor is a great fan of bicycling. But his fellow Tory peer, Lady Sharples is right at the top of the premier league of Baroness bicycle bashers.
Now, whatever comes of this challenge to save Cycling England and all the worthy work it does, there is one for for sure. There is no need to worry about saving the future of a government funded body that gets £60m a year to do similar worthy work to promote the training and testing of scooter or motorbike riders. And that’s for the simple reason that such a body is a bit like Blair’s WMD in Iraq, it does not exist.
Nevertheless, concerned as I am about such iniquities, I am not a bicycle basher like the Tory baroness – or in anyway anti-cyclist. Actually, in my humble opinion, cyclists and riders of of motorbikes or scooters have two key things in common. First, we ride single track machines on roads and help cut congestion like no twin tracked vehicles can. And secondly, all single-track machine riders are vulnerable to attack by people in or out of big tin boxes with wheels on – and we deserve as much help and protection as we can get. But going back to dear old Wolmar’s angry letter, I have to say that it never ceases to amaze me how much some fans of cycling will demand – even in times when everyone is facing cuts.